Etienne van Heerden was born in 1954, six years after the official advent of apartheid. His mother was an English speaking mathematics teacher. His father, an Afrikaans speaking merino stud breeder, farmed the family farms in the Karoo. Van Heerden was reared Afrikaans, with English reserved for use at home on Tuesdays, and learned from comics ordered from London.
He matriculated at Paul Roos Gymnasium in Stellenbosch, and studied at the Universities of Stellenbosch, Rhodes and the Witwatersrand. He obtained a BA Law (Stellenbosch), LLB (Stellenbosch), Honours in Afrikaans and Netherlandic Studies (cum laude, Stellenbosch), MA in literature (cum laude, Wits) and a PhD at the University of Rhodes. He received a D.Litt. honorary doctorate from the University of the Free State during the reign of vice-chancellor Jonathan Jansen.
Van Heerden was admitted to the South African Sidebar as attorney. During his articles of clerkship, he freelanced as assistant Deputy Sheriff for the Civil Court and moved about in the townships around Cape Town, dispensing civil summonses and learning a great deal about life in these suppressed communities. Working for a Cape firm of attorneys, his clients were mostly from the black and coloured communities around Cape Town.
Van Heerden lectured Legal Practice part-time at the Peninsula Technikon and spent two years in advertising. At age thirty, with the birth of his eldest daughter, Van Heerden left the routine of a budding Cape Town advertising agency. He and his family relocated to northern Natal where he began his academic career in Literature at the University of Zululand. His PhD (Rhodes University) was a study on engagement and postmodernism.
He has published 28 books, some edited, and contributed to more than 65 anthologies worldwide. His books are published in 12 languages, namely Afrikaans, Russian, Greek , Hebrew, French, Norwegian, Finnish, Swedish, Danish, English, Dutch and German. Apart from books, his writing includes essays and journalism on culture and politics published worldwide in journals, magazines, leading newspapers and other publications.
He has won all the major South African literary awards, some more than once, e.g. the Hertzog Prize (twice), the CNA Literary Award (twice), the ATKV Award (five times), the Nadine Gordimer Short Story Award, the WA Hofmeyr Prize for Afrikaans Fiction (five times) the M-Net Literary Award (twice), the Eugène Marais Prize, the Rapport Prize for Fiction, the University of Johannesburg Prize for Literature and others. He also received the Klein Karoo National Arts Festival Pioneer Award as recognition for his work on language, literature and the electronic media, as well as the Financial Mail J&B Young Achievers Award. He received the Insig Afrikaans Unlimited Award in 2000.